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Because the bogus demands of modern living do not appeal to him, a 40-year-old San Francisco suburbanite named Warwick (Commodore) Tompkins is making long-range plans to chuck it all and go to sea. Tompkins, whose confusing nautical nickname was given him by a New York newspaperman, insists that in 10 years he and his wife Janet will have hocked their earthly goods and will be sailing on a sweet, beautiful ketch of his own design, visiting fabled places and touching shores not yet touted in the travel ads.
On both U.S. coasts there are many sailors who feel as Warwick Tompkins does. Most of them will keep on suffering from land cramps and carry their sea dream to the grave. On the surface, Tompkins seems as quixotic as all the others. He plans to have a 55-foot hull built: narrow of beam and fast, yet easily handled by two people. Since his wife Janet is in favor of it, the dream seems truly good, except that Tompkins is a man of modest means.
To cut the cost, Tompkins plans to finish off the interior of his dream hull at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. Since the 300-yard lane leading to his house between other properties is barely 10 feet wide, it is not clear how Tompkins will get such a big hull home to work on. And, since the canted parking area where he plans to do the work affords a Volkswagen barely room to turn around without clipping a neighbor's fence, it is hard to understand how Tompkins will get his boat off the property if he ever gets it on. When he is reminded of these realities, Tompkins says, "Don't worry. I'll manage it."
Of all the restless owls and pussycats who would like to live at sea, Tompkins is the one most likely to succeed. He has a leg up on all the others. He has already lived his dream once in bits and pieces and is quite capable of putting it all together again. In the art of kicking over the traces and living each day for its worth, Tompkins is a master. In the complex and demanding art of surviving, living, loving, working, competing and playing at sea, he is very, very well apprenticed. Over the years, aboard four dozen ships of various rig and quality, Tompkins has served as swabber, as bosun and chips, as rigger, deck ape, watch captain, navigator, helmsman, tactician, strategist, skipper and impromptu chaplain. Although Tompkins usually drives an automobile with about as much verve as Stirling Moss' grandmother, he has a reputation for always driving a racing sailboat to the limit of its wire and cloth and with a special bit of magic.
In the fall of 1970 Tompkins was a member of the American six-meter crew that whopped the Australians in their home waters. Last spring, in the Miami to Montego Bay race, a bomb of a hull called Improbable (conceived by Tompkins while taking a shower one night and finalized by designer Gary Mull of San Francisco) covered 811 miles in three days and 20 hours, skunking all the titans and titmice of a 33-boat fleet. It is doubtful if any racing hull as small as Improbable—43 feet overall—ever before made such a long, fast run or ever will again. Riding the high winds to Jamaica, at times Improbable was surfing down waves with her speed-indicator needle pegged at the maximum 20 knots.
In this fancy age of cold-cured plastic hulls and instant navigation, the ocean-racing fleets on both U.S. coasts are growing fast, and there is a dearth of truly able hands. With no more than a burp of interest, a man of Tompkins' ability can usually get a berth in any race. On any hull seriously racing, it is generally considered that Tompkins' presence is worth a foot of rating on a long haul in heavy weather.
It has been said that God created the world in six days but that it takes 20 years to make a sailor. On this basis Warwick Tompkins is worth two ordinary hands, for he began his sea apprenticeship 40 years ago in the days beyond his remembering. According to his father, Warwick Tompkins Sr. (who was master of the vessel as well as an accomplice in the act), Tompkins Jr. was conceived accidentally aboard an old German pilot schooner called Wander Bird. The younger Tompkins made his first two Atlantic crossings aboard this 85-footer while still in utero and made two more passages as a mewling infant. His first berth on Wander Bird was a grocery basket atop the spare sails in the bosun's locker. When he outgrew the basket, he was bedded down in a bottom bureau drawer in the master's cabin.
At the age of nine months Tompkins Jr. was making his way from the sole of the Wander Bird up the crooked companionway to the deck. As a 2-year-old he climbed the shrouds to the crosstrees of the main mast, 65 feet above deck. When Wander Bird was becalmed on summer days, the young Tompkins was allowed over the side to swim in mid-ocean. At the age of four he was cavorting aloft with the insouciance of a gibbon, climbing Wander Bird's shrouds, swinging off and riding a halyard back to the deck.
In that same year Warwick's father sailed the old schooner around Cape Horn. The elder Tompkins did not make his Horn passage west to east as many a benighted sailor has done, nor through the straits as Magellan first did. He sailed east to west around the whole ball of wax, clawing to windward along the same hard track taken by the Dutch skipper Schouten long ago. Warwick Tompkins Sr. took movies of the Horn passage, including footage of his young son swinging around in the rigging and playing out on the plunging bowsprit. Although the film was generally well received on the lecture circuit in the '30s, it met with resistance. Some previewers thought the shots of the 4-year-old kid 65 feet aloft were fake. Others who wanted the film for school audiences felt that young Tompkins' antics should not be shown to city kids who might try the same foolishness on telephone poles and kill themselves.
A few years back Dr. Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian behaviorist, became acquainted with the early history and life-style of Warwick Tompkins Jr. Dr. Lorenz opined that anyone so well imprinted on the sea as a child could not help but be happy sailing on it. Although Lorenz is the last word in such matters, Tompkins' first recollection of the sea is one of distaste. He remembers crouching belowdecks beside his older sister Ann, crying in terror as Wander Bird was staggered by a sea that carried away 30 feet of bulwark.